For the given of its size, location, economic potential, India has been holding an important and unique position in South Asia. In the terms of geography, demography, economy and military, it is the largest country in the South Asia. For the given of such factors, the countries of South Asia have always been remained skeptical of taking undue advantage of the weak bargaining capacity of neighbouring countries in a bilateral dialogue. India wanted to enhance bilateral relations with all the South Asian countries, but Bhashin (2008) has argued that its bilateralism took as an instrument of coercive diplomacy and Indian hegemony.
Conceptualization of India’s South Asia Policy
Michael (2013) has argued that the inspiration and philosophy of Indian foreign policy has been derived from Kautilya’s Arthashastra, that is believed to be as a manual of statecraft. In this manual, the incumbent or the potential king has been guided, how to rule a state or what rules are to be followed to gain geopolitical and geostrategic space in terms of power in the region.
India has been following good neighbourly policy even before its independence. This argument could be substantiated by the argument of Rajkumar (1952: 46), who quoted Jawaharlal Nehru’s first speech delivered in December 1927, wherein he said, “The people of India have no quarrel with their neighbours and desire to live at peace with them.” The Nehruvian foreign policy had been consistently followed by the successive governments of India.
In the post-Cold War era, India has emerged as an economic global player in the global arena. The former Indian foreign secretary Nirupama Rao (2009-2011), has argued and accepted that a ‘peaceful neighbourhood is mandatory for the realization of India’s vision of economic growth.’ Realizing the geopolitical and geostrategic imperatives, India has invoked all the neighbouring countries to be partners and contribute to the regional growth and prosperity (MEA, Annual Report 2005: 1).
Modifying the South Asian Policy
India has been pursuing good neighbourly policy vis-à-vis South Asian countries, however, it is failed to convince them of the same. The leadership of these countries is of the firm opinion that India has been pursuing hegemonic policy. Moreover, the relations with almost all countries have remained off the keel. Since India has been emerging as one of the economic powers, thus, it realized that peaceful neighbourhood is the prerequisite of its economic development and prosperity in general and for the region in particular.
Even before the formation of his government, Modi had outlined foreign policy priorities during a Network 18 TV Programme: 'Think India, Dialogue Forum,' in 2013 as:
•Improving relations with immediate neighbours, as peace and tranquility in South Asia is essential for realizing the development agenda.
•The introduction of para-diplomacy.
•Enhance of bilateral trade with all the countries.
In order to show his priority and interest towards South Asia, the first, and unique step was taken by inviting all the heads of the South Asian countries. Moreover, it was believed that it would undo the criticism of his being hardliner. The invited guests list included-Hamid Karzai (Afghanistan), Tshering Tobgay (Bhutan), Abdulla Yameen (Maldives), Sushil Koirala (Nepal), Nawaz Sharif (Pakistan), Mahinda Rajapaksa (Sri Lanka), Navin Ramgoolam (Mauritius), Parliamentary Speaker Shirin Sharmin Chaudhury (Bangladesh) respectively. The policy was christened as the Neighbourhood First Policy, later on, formalized and concretized by the first speech of Indian President Pranab Mukherji (2014, June 9) and PM Address to the 69th Session of the United Nations General Assembly. By highlighted the place of neighbours in Indian foreign policy PM Modi said, “A nation’s destiny is linked to its neighbourhood. That is why my government has placed the highest priority on advancing friendship and cooperation with its neighbours.”
The objective of the first step is to improve and enhance bilateral ties with the South Asian countries. PM also held talks with all the all the heads individually on the second day of swearing-in-ceremony. During these meetings, he strongly advocated for trade, connectivity, infrastructure, transit facility issues among the South Asian countries. On the eve of 18th SAARC Summit, Kathmandu (2014, November 26-27), he also exhorted his counterparts to give greater focus on the people to people contacts, better connectivity, commercial linkages among the South Asian region.
PM Modi visited almost all the South Asian countries in order to enhance multifaceted engagements with these countries. Bhutan was the maiden foreign visit of PM Modi. He had emphasized on building economic ties between both the countries. The other areas of cooperation included hydro-electric deal, the inauguration of the India-funded Supreme Court of Bhutan building. The bilateral relations between both countries were termed as "unique and special relationship."
After the long hiatus of 17 years, PM Modi had visited Nepal. This visit has created an unprecedented enthusiasm among the Nepali public and politicians. He became the first foreign leader to address the constituent assembly of Nepal. PM Modi has also declared a long list of gifts to Nepal. He advocated that borders must be bridges, not barriers." But Nepal’s constitutional crisis 2015 and Indian stand on it, distanced both the countries from each other despite India’s neighbourhood first policy.
The bilateral relationship between India and Bangladesh has also improved a lot under the Neighbourhood first policy. The controversial issues between both the countries have been sorted out like boundary issue through the land boundary agreement (LBA) and the Teesta water-sharing pact. Bangladesh has also been cooperating in eliminating the extremist groups from North-East. Similarly, good relations have been developed with Sri Lanka under the stewardship of PM despite reservation about the Hambantota port and stationing of Chinese submarines at the same port. Maldives is a very important country for India’s maritime security architecture. Due to this, Maldives has been figuring very prominently in Indian neighbourhood policy.
Pakistan is a country which is difficult to deal with despite having neighbourhood first policy. The hardliner perception of PM Modi has substantially changed when on the swearing-in-ceremony, PM Nawaz Sharif was invited. During the talk between both the leaders, they looked forwarded to improve the relations by starting the dialogue at various levels which have been suspended even before taking over the governments by both the leaders. But despite India’s number of efforts like visiting by PM Modi to Pakistan during the marriage of grand-daughter of PM Nawaz Sharif, conveying best wishes for the birthday and surgery of PM Nawaz Sharif, the dialogues at all levels have remained suspended. Intermittently, gun-firing on the line control distancing both the countries from each other. The Kashmir issue has been time and again raised in the international forum such as UNSC and GCC etc. Notwithstanding of India’s good neighbourly policy, the bilateral relations between both the countries have not been improved.
Similarly, Afghanistan has figured very prominently. It is called as the first strategic partner of India. India became the fifth largest donor to Afghanistan. India has made substantial FDI of US$ 2 billion. Very recently, parliament building built by India handed over to Afghanistan. Afghanistan people hold India in a very high esteem. However, neighbourhood first policy, did not show any substantive results in respect of Pakistan and Nepal.
India pursuing it neighbourhood policy since its independence which is consistently being followed by the successive government. This policy has been derived from the Kautilya’s Arthsashtra. After taking over the reign of the Indian government, PM Modi has revived and renovated the policy into neighbourhood first. Though this policy has been remained a bit successful in improving relations with some of the countries but it has been failed in respect of Pakistan and Nepal. It is, therefore, recommended that neighbourhood policy is required to be remodeled and refashioned, in order to not only improve relations bilaterally rather creating the peace and stability for the entire South Asian region.